ASCAP songwriter Mike Errico is an accomplished recording artist, writer and professor of songwriting. He’s got a brand new book out on November 15, called Music, Lyrics, and Life: A Field Guide for the Advancing Songwriter (Backbeat Books), which every songwriter should read pronto. Here’s an excerpt from it. When you’re done reading, check out Mike’s “What the Brain Likes” playlist, featuring brainy songs from his former songwriting students.
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Our audience is the human brain. Apologies to those who feel I’m giving the heart the short end of the stick here, but what can I tell you? Hearts can be transplanted. You know who figured out how to do that? Brains.
I’m not a neurologist, but as a songwriter, I’ve done some tinkering and a little market research, and here’s what I’ve noticed:
The Brain Likes to Be Right
When the brain figures something out, it orders the arm to give a victorious little fist pump. We might emit a Yesss or look for some- one to high-five. These gestures are the brain throwing itself a victory parade because that’s how much it likes to be right. Also at the victory parade: dopamine, a neurotransmitter that opens the doors of the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. The victory parade runs right through those doors, and it’s a pretty kick-ass after-party.
Having gotten a taste of delicious dopamine, the brain becomes restless to repeat the process. Why? Maybe it’s curious about the process, maybe it’s hooked on dopamine—and maybe that’s what curiosity is, which is a little depressing. Entrepreneurs identify the cycle (problem/solution/victory parade/search for more problems) and capitalize on it by inventing little obstacle courses for the brain to run: mobile games featuring bubbles that need organizing; Rubik’s Cubes; fantasy sports leagues; and so on. But it doesn’t have to be that elaborate: even normal, everyday puzzles can give similar results. When the amps and guitars all fit in the trunk of the car? When dinner is comprised only of leftovers but actually tastes good? Yesss.
A song provides something similar: it’s a puzzle with pieces we call sections and larger patterns we call song form. By learning the repeated twists and turns in the music, decoding the lyrics, and identifying the bigger picture it presents, the brain “solves” the puzzle the writer has created. Then? Victory parade. With dopamine.
There are a few basic song forms that have proven incredibly durable despite changing fashion trends and technological leaps. You can chart out songs that were released decades apart and see a similar logic in the same way building blueprints address the common laws of gravity. Why? Because the product (a song in one of these forms) still yields a reward (sweet, sweet dopamine). And when the product is successful, the reasonable conclusion is to continue creating the product.
There are three basic song forms. I won’t dwell on them because this information is ubiquitous:
- verse – verse – pre-chorus – chorus – verse – pre-chorus – chorus – bridge – chorus(es)
(see Kelly Clarkson, “Since U Been Gone”)
- A section – A section – B section – A section – B section – A section
(see the Beatles, “Yesterday”)
- A section – A section – A section – A section
(see Tom Waits, “Walking Spanish”)
Yes, there are more popular AAAA songs than Tom Waits’s “Walking Spanish,” but it’s my book, and I like that song.
Please note: I’m being reductive in order to be clear. Of course, there are endless variations. Rappers in my classes can feel restrained by the forms I mentioned, and the reasons stem directly from the priorities of the art: many are telling linear stories that work like epic poems or novels. Novelists don’t repeat key chapters, so why would a rapper? A chorus, from that perspective, is actually a speed bump in the story and an interruption in the plot. More pop-leaning rappers will toss the chorus to a singer, but some will argue that lyric and flow contain the larger meaning within the work; as a result, I get a lot of songs that, if you were to chart them, would read, simply, “A . . .” In these cases, I suggest they throw the brain a bone by put- ting some repeated information in the instrumental arrangement—a defining “hook” that a listener can sing back, thereby infecting the next potential fan. Hook recognition is a form of puzzle solving, which is a win-win: the writer keeps the intent of the art alive while writing in a language the listener can grasp.
Can the writer do absolutely none of these things and still make something beautiful and have people listen and live a wonderful, productive life? Yes. Of course, yes. Your audience for that kind of music would be me, actually, because I love a good eight-hour-long Max Richter concept album based on the human sleep cycle; I love a good cow choir on TikTok. I get tired of being spoon-fed choruses. Hell, I even get tired of pizza if I’m given enough of it. What I’m saying is that the Venn diagram of your listeners may vary—and, like your diet, maybe it should.
Read more at ASCAP
Music, Lyrics, and Life: A Field Guide for the Advancing Songwriter will be released on Backbeat Books.
ABOUT MIKE ERRICO
New York–based recording artist, writer and lecturing professor Mike Errico has built his name on the strength of critically-acclaimed releases and extensive composition for film and TV. Live, Errico has toured internationally, playing major music festivals and sharing stages with top artists and songwriters. In addition to his recording career, Errico’s opinions and insights have appeared in publications including the New York Times, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, the UK Independent and the Observer. He teaches songwriting at universities including Yale, Wesleyan and NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. Visit Mike’s official site: www.errico.com